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Provo is approximately 2,100 miles from Cambridge, Mass., which doesn't begin to explain the mileage Brigham Young University has gotten out of Daniel Simmons, the scientist BYU lured away from Harvard in 1989.

In Simmons, BYU got a top-notch researcher whose lab work led to the creation of a class of painkillers and gave the LDS Church-owned institution a measure of respectability, especially for a university with no medical school. BYU also nabbed a dedicated director for its Cancer Research Center and a mentor for hundreds of budding doctors and scientists.

The benefits for Simmons are less obvious.

When it comes to funding, peer support and prestige, BYU can't compete with Harvard Medical School, where Simmons had a position waiting for him. The Provo school also lacks the legal prowess of a research university accustomed to safeguarding scientific discoveries. And Simmons enjoys none of the classroom concessions his distinguished colleagues take for granted.

In other words, Simmons took a teaching job that actually requires him to teach, and that, say former students, may be his most valuable contribution to BYU - and his biggest reward.

Their perception could change if BYU wins a lawsuit against drug giant Pfizer related to the popular pain reliever Celebrex.

The lawsuit, filed Oct. 18 in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City, seeks in excess of $1 billion for claims related to the creation of Pfizer's Celebrex. In the suit, BYU claims it had a 1991 contract with Pfizer's predecessor to collaborate on development of an anti-inflammatory drug. Under the contract, Simmons would direct the research project, Pfizer would handle the patents, and the school would share in the profits.

Instead, the lawsuit alleges, Pfizer used Simmons' research to test a compound patented by another scientist, canceled its contract with BYU, and denied the school and its professor any of the credit or rewards related to Celebrex.

Pfizer insists Simmons had nothing to do with its blockbuster drug, and for seven years, the company shrugged off BYU's attempts to reach an out-of-court settlement. Through it all Simmons kept teaching and living the lessons he learned during his own schooling.

"At [the University of] Wisconsin I had it pounded in to me that you bang it out no matter what is in the way," Simmons told Michael Smart, now a BYU spokesman, for a 2003 profile in BYU Magazine. "You do the experiment even if you have to walk across campus and borrow some material - you get it done today."

Simmons declined to be interviewed for this story, citing the pending litigation. But in the magazine profile, he spoke about his education, the decision to shun Harvard for BYU, and the discovery that launched his career.

Provo roots: Growing up on the outskirts of Provo, Simmons always was interested in science, the kind of kid who would examine snowflakes under a microscope. At BYU, he earned undergraduate and master's degrees in zoology, then went to the University of Wisconsin for his Ph.D. in oncology.

The Wisconsin work ethic served him well at Harvard, where Simmons earned a post-doctoral fellowship to do cancer research. From 1986 to 1989, he worked in the lab of Raymond Erikson, one of the country's leading experts on cancer genes. Even then, Simmons had a knack for instruction.

"Dan was first-class, highly collegial. He contributed in a major way to others by offering advice or helping out with his own hands on experiments," Erikson told The Salt Lake Tribune. "He was one of the very best post docs I've had in my lab."

While at Harvard, Simmons conducted an extensive analysis of the different messages that are turned on and off in cells as they became malignant, Erikson said. Among the genes that were highly expressed in cancer cells was the COX-2 gene. In 1988, a year before his fellowship ended and while he was still sequencing the genes, Simmons began inquiring about faculty positions around the country.

BYU's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry had an opening, and Simmons was invited to interview. Simmons, who had family and religious ties to Utah, accepted the offer and prepared to tell his colleagues.

According to the story in BYU Magazine, Simmons broke the news during one of the group's twice-a-week "teas," a Harvard tradition since 1953, in which researchers talk shop over Brie and hummus. His announcement was met with "immediate silence," Simmons told the magazine.

"The communal embarrassment of this 'hideous' position was palpable," Simmons said. "They thought I was the most idiotic person there."

Simmons' best friend in the lab offered a reluctant good-for-you - then quickly helped line up a full-time offer at Harvard Medical School. Simmons admitted having second thoughts about his first choice, but for reasons he has kept private, he returned to BYU.

"Not to disparage BYU, but it is unequivocal that, given Dan's talent, he could have landed at a much more visible institution that would have supported his research or at least given him more freedom in doing his research than occurred at BYU," Erikson said. "He could have done much better had he been more patient."

But, as Erikson noted, being patient is tough when you have a family to support, as Simmons did. And living in the Boston area can be a pinch on the pocketbook. So Erikson wished his protege well, and offered a going-away present - the genetic samples from his Harvard research.

"It's always been my practice that people who leave the lab should take with them some project to work on in their own lab," Erikson said. "It's a competitive atmosphere out there, and you can't start from scratch in this day and age."

Heavy load: Once at BYU, Simmons wasted no time. He borrowed Weilin Xie (pronounced Shay), a graduate assistant in another professor's lab, began sequencing a specific gene highly expressed in cancer cells and found it contained an enzyme that causes inflammation. Although other scientists made similar discoveries at the time, the BYU team was the first to publish its findings on the enzyme, dubbed COX-2.

The article was published in the April 1991 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and three months later BYU and Simmons formalized an agreement with Monsanto, the company that would later become Pfizer.

Rather than apply for a patent, the private school placed its trust in the powerful drugmaker, and, according to the school's lawsuit, was cheated out of billions of dollars as a result. Erikson can't help but wonder if Simmons would have fared better at another school.

Priority in science is everything. Being second means nothing, Erikson said, noting that BYU didn't give Simmons any easy breaks. Even after it became apparent that the COX-2 story was a big breakthrough, Simmons was still teaching an enormous load for anyone under normal circumstances, Erikson said.

"At a place like Harvard, at many institutions, if something big like that were to happen, some concession would be made to lighten his teaching load," he added.

Brian Ladle, a former BYU student who is about to graduate from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, has experienced the advantages of working at a larger research school. But as an undergraduate student who benefited from Simmons' willingness to shoulder a full class load, it's hard for him to find fault with the professor's choice.

"At BYU, though funding was limited and my project wasn't as interesting, I had ownership and the focus was on me," Ladle says.

Simmons' teaching may have siphoned time away from research, but it did not stifle his success.

In October 2002, Simmons discovered a third COX enzyme that could unlock the long-baffling mystery of the inner workings of acetaminophen - the drug sold in "aspirin-free" pain relievers such as Tylenol. BYU promptly negotiated a deal with Merck and Co. that will provide the university future royalties in return for licenses on patent-pending biotechnology. Merck also agreed to fund the next 2 1/2 years of Simmons' research.

Motivation: Simmons' interest in pain relief extends beyond the lab; his wife, Trudy, suffers from arthritis and has benefited from using new drugs developed since her husband's findings more than a decade ago.

But it is Simmons' efforts to advance his students' interests that Ladle will remember most. In addition to teaching undergraduate and graduate classes, Simmons started a summer fellowship program at BYU.

"That program kept me in the lab for two summers and not working at a fast-food joint," Ladle says.

Ladle said Simmons is unassuming, and good at explaining basic concepts.

"Some teachers close their eyes and do the same thing again and again, year in and year out. Not Dr. Simmons," says Xie, the graduate student who, after working with Simmons on the COX-2 research, landed a job the San Diego research firm Celgene Corp.

"He's really into it. He feels obligated to do what's best for students."